In science fiction movies, some of the coolest (and seemingly most impossible) technology is used on defense, not offense – force fields. That it, mostly-invisible shields of energy that protect the user from incoming attacks. Defense mega-contractor Boeing recently secured a patent for something it calls “Method and system for shockwave attenuation via electromagnetic arc .” The question is, has Star Wars technology finally arrived on real-life battle fields?
In a word, no. But if Boeing’s patented device works as the patent describes, what they’ve accomplished is still pretty amazing.
Boeing’s force field does nothing to neutralize bullets, shrapnel or any solid projectile. Instead, what it’s designed to do is partially deflect shockwaves from nearby explosions, which isn’t for nothing – the shockwave from a blast can be responsible for most of its carnage, depending on the size of the explosive.
The force field technology relies on two systems: One is a sensor that detects an incoming shockwave, and the other an arc generator that creates a plasma field using lasers, microwaves and electricity. The idea is nothing if not novel. Because the plasma heats and ionizes the air around it, it creates an area of differing density and composition. The idea is that upon hitting the plasma field, the incoming shockwave would be slowed down, absorbed and even deflected to varying degrees.
Incidentally, the plasma field is why such technology can’t be turned on all the time. Though it’s possible, doing so would render whoever’s inside the force field unable to see beyond it – not a comforting feeling when your force field can’t block physical projectiles. Speaking of which, while a plasma field capable of stopping bullets and the like may be theoretically achievable, the energy required to do so would be astronomical.
What’s perhaps most intriguing about the patent is something that many seem to overlook – not only is Boeing’s device intended to deflect shockwaves from bombs, but it may also be able to detect nearby bombs and determine whether or not they’re enough of a threat to warrant deploying the force field, should they explode. From the patent:
“The method of claim 20, wherein detecting includes measuring a signature of an incoming threat carrying the explosive device; comparing the signature with known signatures of a plurality of different threats; determining a probability the incoming threat is one of the plurality of different threats; and calculating includes estimating a probability distribution function of explosion magnitudes and locations relative to the protected asset based on at least one of stored data about the type of explosive device, measured motion of the incoming threat, and a shape, relative orientation and relative motion of the protected asset; and making a determination to counter the incoming threat or not counter the incoming threat, based on one of stored data and models of vulnerability of the protected asset to shockwaves, and data from at least one of data and models of performance of the arc generator with respect to attenuating shockwaves from the estimated explosion magnitudes and locations.”
Essentially, it would make the “protected asset” both bomb-proof and a bomb-sniffing dog all at once. IT may not be Star Wars, but it’s still a huge step forward in defense technology.